A Visually Appealing Classroom: Designed for Sensory Success
by Margaret Oliver, MEd
Autism Asperger’s Digest | July/August 2012
Effective classroom design provides structure, predictability, and consistency for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It can support transitions and can help students become more independent. It’s a mix of what to include and what to leave out, what colors to use, and where to display instructional materials. When setting up a classroom that will include students on the spectrum, the following are areas to consider.
Parts of the Whole
Regardless of the size of a classroom, it can have clearly defined areas:
- break area or calm corner
- independent work area
- group instruction areas: large and small
- computer area
Canvas partitions work well to create specific areas, are cost effective, and portable. I’ve attached two partitions with the provided plastic joints to form one long wall to create a space where my students can gather for quiet reading on bean bags, and later in the day I swing one partition at a 45-degree angle to create a smaller, enclosed work area. Bookcases can work in a similar fashion to delineate a quiet area or independent study sections. In smaller rooms you can create small group or individual instruction areas simply by placing tri-fold cardboard displays (the ones used for science fair projects) on the table. They too are portable and inexpensive and are wonderful at helping the students focus on the task at hand.
Each classroom has its design challenges, so you will need to give the layout a lot of thought and muscle as you try different configurations. Once you discover a workable floor plan, it rarely needs adjustment.
Color and Lighting
Select a color palette and be consistent. Narrow down your color selection to two or three colors and refrain from adding the remainder of the rainbow. The simplicity can be peaceful. Choose a main color and one supportive color and, if you wish, add an accent color. For example, blue is my main color—all of my bulletin boards are covered in blue felt and my kidney table is blue. Yellow is my secondary color, so bulletin board lettering and area partitions are yellow. I add the smallest dash of red for accent. Red is often our students’ favorite color, but overuse of red in a classroom can be agitating; I don’t recommend it as a main or supportive color choice. If you have an abrasive wall color, it can be neutralized through the placement of fire-retardant fabric over a selected, focal area.
Subdued lighting is a preference over bright overhead fluorescent lights. Incandescent bulbs in lamps provide a softer, more calming effect in the classroom if allowed in your building. If overhead fluorescent lights are your only option, you can consider using only half the lights or hanging fire-retardant scallops of fabric under
the lights to deflect the direct harshness. On sunny days
in classrooms with windows, you can opt to use only
Wall Displays and Borders
I am extremely selective of what goes on my walls and bulletin boards and, although I love aesthetics, my practical side wins when it comes to deciding what goes up—only the necessary. Each bulletin board and display must have the purpose of explaining the student’s day. Does this mean that I do not display my students’ work in the classroom? Yes, it does. Instead I use our classroom door and hallway walls to show off their efforts. It keeps clutter off my classroom walls, and it lets my students share their work with the rest of the school. In addition to posting the morning and afternoon schedules, I’ve added one more section for daily events. I place the students’ photos and time for each day’s pull-out therapies. The students are prepared for the change in schedule, and my memory is assisted, too.
After years of meticulous room design aimed at guiding my students throughout their day, I came to realize one more hint as I observed my students’ learning styles. One boy in particular needed his lessons to be confined in a clearly defined area, such as in a box or on a mat. He needed to know the visual borders. With this realization I expanded my displays to have borders, too. Each bulletin board addresses one topic only, such as class rules or the weekly theme. The display for daily specials, morning schedule, and afternoon schedule are now separated with two-inch-wide ribbon. This visual enhancement helps the students remain focused on the purpose of each display. As you might surmise, the borders correspond with the colors of my selected classroom color theme.
Minimizing Visual Distractions
My storage shelves are covered with curtains to reduce the cluttered look and to minimize the temptation for my students to go shopping on my shelves. Out of sight is really out of mind! In my classroom, which dates back to 1899, the chalkboard was years beyond its expiration date so I purchased inexpensive patio curtains to cover the dinged chalkboard. I also spent about eight hours removing tape and stickers from two metal cabinets to create a less distractive surface. One of my students continually pointed out the shapes of the sticky leftovers, but the habit ceased after my intense cleaning therapy. If it distracts, it must be addressed.
A professional classroom design will guide and support your students throughout the day. It is a pleasure to see my students viewing the daily specials and schedule even before they take off their coats upon arrival.
And this is proof that we are ready to learn!
Margaret Oliver teaches Grade K–2 students with ASD for Akron Public Schools (Ohio). She has learned much about ASD through relatives, friends, and students.
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